Just Trial in Apology of Socrates by Plato and Gospel of Mark

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Throughout history, within different cultures and religions, our conception of justice in the sense of a fair trial has varied. As many of us may often view the courtroom as an institution that foster justice, we must then concern ourselves with the normative question of what the procedures of a just trial typically entails. The Gospel of Mark and The Apology of Socrates by Plato both respond to this question in different ways. While the trials discussed in these two works display some similarities, comparatively to our normative ideas of a fair trial, The Apology of Socrates is more exemplary of an impartial trial, whereas the Gospel of Mark is a closer representation of an unjust trial.

Prior to the events of the actual trials, the accused characters from each story were arrested for normatively unjust reasons. Both Jesus from the Gospel of Mark and Socrates from The Apology of Socrates were considered threats to highly regarded societal figures of their time. The two characters were viewed within their respective societies as disruptions to the status quo and the preexisting values in place. Jesus’ preachings and very existence created societal conflict, as he challenged the teachings of the Jewish leaders of the time (Mark 11:18). To rid society of Jesus, whom they considered to be a nuisance, “the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none” (Mark 14:55). However, despite the arguable lack of warranted accusations against Jesus, the high priests and other religious leaders, still brought him before Pontius Pilate, the Roman official who presided over Jesus’ trial, to have him crucified for crimes that he did not commit (Mark 15:1-5). Despite the little to no evidence that was present against him, Jesus was accused and incriminated for a number of severe crimes.

Similarly to Jesus, Socrates was incriminated for defiance against societal beliefs; he was accused of impiety and corruption of the youth, as he offered new ideas and ways of thinking that did not align with popular Athenian values at the time (Apology 26a). While Meletus accuses Socrates of committing these crimes, he is unable to provide a legitimate and plausible reason as to why Socrates would have had these malicious intentions (Apology 25a-e). Socrates claims to have not been corrupting the youth, but if he was, it was unwillingly (Apology 26a). In the premise of a fair trial in which there is legitimacy behind one’s accusations, Socrates would not have been brought to court to have his faith determined by a room full of Athenian men.

Athenian “law does not require you to bring people to court for such unwilling wrongdoings, but to get hold of them privately, to instruct them and exhort them” (Apology 26a). Thus, similarly to the arrest and charges pressed against Jesus, the accusations against Socrates were not substantial, nor were they handled in the proper way according to the law. If addressed in accordance to true Athenian law, Socrates would not have had to stand before the court, and ultimately, would have been freed from being executed (Apology 26a). The allegations and processes of arrest displayed within these two texts were made under false pretenses, and are reflective of what ought not to be procedural components of a normatively fair trial.

Despite these unsubstantial allegations against Jesus and Socrates, some form of a trial was forced onto both of them. Their trials, however, displayed several vast differences. While Socrates’ trial portrayed some normative aspects of a just trial, Jesus’ trial was embellished with a number of characteristics that go against our normative ideas of the procedures of justice. A normatively just trial in today’s society requires a jury consisting of two main characteristics: the jury must be impartial, and it must be constructed of a number of individuals, who together will deem the accused party as either guilty or not guilty. Jesus, however, was never formally presented with a jury whom would fairly decide his faith.

Instead, Jesus’ life remained mainly in the hands of Pontius Pilate, who held the most direct power in determining the guilt or innocence of Jesus; because the religious officials did not have enough authority to execute criminals, they delivered him to Pilate, in the hopes that Pilate would declare death upon Jesus (Mark 15:1). In a fair trial, it is normatively unjust to hand a single individual ultimate power in making such grave and significant decision on his or her own. The lack of a collective voting system in Jesus’ trial was a key aspect in which the Gospel of Mark does not display normative ideas of fair trials as properly as The Apology of Socrates does.

As opposed to utilizing a formal, collective voting system to ensure justice, the final verdict of Jesus’ innocence was determined by Pontius Pilate, whose decision resulted from biases and pressure from the religious officials present at the trial. While Pilate was well aware “that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed [Jesus] over,” his main prerogative laid in satisfying and appeasing the religious leaders and onlooking citizens (Mark 15:10). While no jury was officially appointed in Jesus’ trial, the religious leaders had great power in swaying Pilate’s final verdict, and were arguably comparable to the likes of a jury. In normative procedures of a trial, however, there should be no individuals who hold bias opinions or motivations in the judging process.

On the other hand, Socrates’ trial better displayed our normative ideas of impartial trials, as it contained a number of elements that allowed for more of a just procedure. Unlike Jesus, Socrates was given a formal opportunity in which he was allowed to defend himself in front of the court. The word “apology” in the sense of this text, “is a transliteration, not a translation, of the Greek apologia which means defense. There is certainly nothing apologetic about the speech” (Apology pg 21n1). Although Jesus was questioned by the Council and Pontius Pilate, thus given some chances to speak, his opportunities to explain his case were extremely minimal.

Socrates was able to speak to an Athenian jury of 501 citizens who were involved in the convicting and sentencing processes of the trial; the trial was conducted in a rather structured and organized way (Apology pg 21). His trial was much more comparable to our normative ideas surrounding fair trials, as opposed to Jesus’ case, which was arguably rushed and had little to no structure implemented within the court procedures.

Because of the variations in the procedures of a trial and overarching societal differences depicted in the two texts, the characters displayed conflicting responses to the situations they were put into. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus seemed to willfully submit himself into the hands of the Jewish leaders and Pilate; although he was not presented with the formal opportunity to speak, he did not seem eager to even attempt to justify himself. Instead, he does not respond to, nor deny the accusations of those who testify against him, and mostly remains silent (Mark 15:3-5).

The entirety of The Apology of Socrates, however, is Socrates’ attempt to defend himself by further trying to educate the Athenian citizens; contrary to Jesus’ response, his speech is filled with passion and fervor (Apology 18a-e). Perhaps these two contradicting responses to the trials are reflective of what their respective societies considered to be just trials at the time. The political and cultural climate of Athens at the time could have given Socrates more incentive to defend himself, whereas the societal values in which Jesus was surrounded by, could have performed as hinderances in his willingness to speak out against those who testified against him.

Our normative idea of just trials have transformed throughout history. The Gospel of Mark and The Apology of Socrates are two works that mutually contain an overarching normative question about the procedures of justice within a trial setting. While neither of the trials in the two texts are perfectly aligned to our normative ideas of fair trials, the trial of Socrates is more characteristic of how our society today deems impartial trials ought to be. As society’s values continue to evolve, perhaps in the future, our response to this normative question will also develop into something new and different.

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Just Trial in Apology of Socrates by Plato and Gospel of Mark. (2022, Jan 05). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/just-trial-in-apology-of-socrates-by-plato-and-gospel-of-mark/

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